Russell, Josephine. (2007). How children become moral
selves: Building character and promoting citizenship in
education. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press.
Pp. xiv + 239 $45 ISBN
1 84519 175 7
Reviewed by Steven P. Camicia
Utah State University
June 10, 2008
When I first read the title of Russell’s book, How
children become moral selves: Building character and promoting
citizenship in education, the association that entered my
mind was Bennet’s (1993) book entitled The Book of
Virtues. His book serves as a manifesto of sorts for
conservative activists who are intent on reinforcing the hegemony
of Eurocentric male morality on new generations of children.
Claims in the curriculum to a central vernacular of virtues are
often based upon “White, middle-class, heterosexual
conceptions of character development” (Johnson, 2008, p.
67). My initial interpretation of Russell’s title as part
of this conservative movement was incorrect, but my reaction
illustrates how conservatives have taken hold of character
education in schools.
As Russell correctly points out, the banner of character
education has been picked up by conservative groups that
emphasize a transmission model of education. The transmission
model is best described by Freire (1998) as the “banking
system” of education where teachers deposit knowledge into
students with little regard for the knowledge and subjectivities
that students bring into the classroom. Under this model,
education is successful when a teacher is able to
‘withdraw’ the same information from a student that
the teacher ‘deposits’. Within the conservative
character education movement, this process translates into
preordained ‘virtues’ that take little notice of the
multiple and overlapping subjectivities that students use to
mediate moral decision-making, caring, and behavior.
In contrast, constructivist models of moral education focus
upon the development of knowledge though social interaction. The
knowledge and subjectivities that students bring into classrooms
are valued as vital components in the learning process. Prior
knowledge is valued as a source to construct new knowledge. It is
within this theoretical orientation that Russell reports her
longitudinal study of the development of moral caring, reasoning,
and behavior in a cohort of children in an Irish parochial
school. She is decidedly a constructivist, which, to situate her
work in a larger conversation, is also considered conservative by
some. With this in mind, moral education is a better descriptor
of Russell’s theoretical orientation than character
education as contained in the subtitle to her book.
The fields of moral and character education have had a long
history of competing visions of what a ‘moral person’
is and how to best help students ‘become’ such a
person. Half of Russell’s book is an attempt to illustrate
the terrain of these competing visions by presenting numerous
theorists, reaching as far back as Plato and Aristotle but,
unfortunately, not as close to the present as the
desconstructionists (e.g. Burman, 2008; Cannella, 1997). It is
against this theoretical backdrop that Russell analyzes and
interprets her qualitative study of the moral and civic
development of a cohort of elementary school students. She
collected data from the cohort when they were in second through
The aim of Russell’s study was to examine the
effectiveness of a whole class activity that is connected to a
program entitled Thinking Time – Philosophy with
Children (Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for
Children). Russell describes a program in moral education
as effective if it helps students enhance “moral thinking,
enabling them to become more thoughtful, respectful and
responsive to others, and fostering traits of character that are
central to democratic education” (p. 5). Russell found that
the Thinking Time program aided in the development of
moral reasoning and caring among both boys and girls. Other
findings emerged in connection with the three themes of her book.
One theme is the different ways that moral development occurs in
children, one cognitive and another affective. The second theme
is the way that moral development might, or might not, be
different between girls and boys. The third theme is the way that
moral development supports civic education. All three of these
themes are connected to the concept of a ‘moral
self’, which I detail later in this review.
The first part of Russell’s book describes the methods
of her study and reviews the literature surrounding moral
education. Over the four and a half year period of the study, she
visited a mixed-gender cohort of students that moved up in grades
together. The students ranged in age from seven to twelve. The
number of participants varied during the study due to
transferring students, but the cohort included approximately 25
students for the duration of the study. Russell entered the
cohort’s classroom to conduct the Thinking Time
activity. During the Thinking Time, Russell read
literature containing moral dilemmas and facilitated discussions
about the literature. These discussions are her units of
analysis. Because of her involvement leading discussions, her
study would best be described as action research.
Chapter 2 presents an overview of “the current
debate” over moral and character education. Unfortunately,
the title of the chapter does not represent the contents.
Although Russell details some of the foundational theorists of
moral developmental psychology, an examination of her references
reveals that most references date in the 1980’s and few
date in the 2000’s. There is an approximately 20 year lag
with the present, leading the reader to wonder how
‘current’ Russell’s portrayal of the debate is.
While mainly focused upon the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, and
Gilligan, the format of her literature review follows familiar
binaries: Platonic vs. Aristotelian ethics, universalist vs.
particularist ethics, Gilligan’s vs. Kohlberg’s
theories, affective vs. cognitive development, and care vs.
justice orientations. A postmodern reader would be disappointed
with these binaries although Russell does blur some of the
traditional binaries in later chapters. For example, she briefly
problematizes the care vs. justice binary as it has been assigned
In chapter 3, Russell uses the concept of the ‘moral
self’ to reexamine traditional binaries. The concept of a
moral self emphasizes the complex ways that personal knowledge
and subjectivities are integrally connected to a person’s
identity. Russell writes, “Moral behavior depends on
something beyond the moral beliefs in and of themselves”
(p. 51). More important than moral reasoning (e.g. Power,
Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989) are the ways that individuals
develop personal understandings of what it means to be a moral
person. According to Russell and the theorists that she cites,
this personal orientation is indicative of a person’s moral
motivation and action. In the remainder of the chapter, Russell
presents issues in moral education that emphasize different
conceptions of what it means to be a moral person. This leads her
back into the construction of familiar binaries such as
communitarian vs. liberal values, cognitive vs. affective
orientations, and transmission vs. constructivist models of
learning. All of these are connected to different epistemologies
concerning morality and ethics.
Russell concludes the first part of her book, in chapter 4, by
presenting a theoretical framework for understanding ethical
enquiry in the classroom and the centrality of social interaction
in the learning process. She considers how reason and
intersubjectivity are connected to moral development. Habermas
(1990) built upon Kohlberg’s developmental theories by
emphasizing the dialogical nature of moral development. When
individuals enter into discussion or argumentation they construct
an understanding of morality that is not possible through
monologue. Similarly, Vygotskian (1981) theories also emphasize
learning though dialogue. Students learn with meditational means
such as language. By participating in dialogue, students learn
how to use language as a tool to think. Next, Russell points to
the benefits of community enquiry in learning and promoting
democratic knowledge, dispositions, and values. In addition to
the development of reason, Russell cites Noddings (1984) who
foregrounds caring as an important part of morality and
education. Russell connects all these literatures with the use of
story as a point of departure to develop moral reasoning, caring,
and behavior. Finally, chapter 4 ends with older research
concerning gender differences in moral orientation. Although
gender difference is related to one of Russell’s research
questions, it is disappointing that she only uses older research
and devotes only three pages to the topic. As a foreshadowing of
her analysis and interpretation, I wanted chapter 4 to be
expanded into three chapters with more developed conceptual
The second part of Russell’s book consists
of findings chapters. Chapter 5 focuses upon the cognitive moral
development of students, as well as related gender differences.
Her findings largely support those of developmental theorists
such as Piaget and Kohlberg. Although interpreting the class
discussions through the lenses of multiple theorists (e. g. Egan,
1997; Lipman, 1988; Matthews, 1984), Kohlberg’s theories
serve as the lens in which most of Russell’s findings are
described, analyzed, and interpreted. There were a few dissonant
findings from those of Kohlberg’s. For example, while
Kohlberg claimed that people did not occupy more than one stage
of moral development simultaneously, Russell did not find this to
be the case in her students. In addition, she found few
differences in moral reasoning between genders.
In chapter 6, Russell examines children’s
understandings of concepts such as equity, racism, fairness,
responsibilities, rights, and honesty as represented in student
discussions of moral and controversial issues. She found that as
students aged, they were better able to understand the
application of moral concepts as context dependent. For example,
she notes that students first advocated for a homogeneous
treatment of people. This emphasis lacked an acknowledgement of
differences due to social positioning and prejudice. In later
grades, students struggled with these issues concerning
immigration policy by examining concepts of fairness, prejudice,
and racism. Other issues such as homelessness, the death penalty,
bullying, and children’s rights were discussed by students.
Students gained empathy and understanding through discussion of
moral and controversial issues. Russell attributes this to
student deliberation during the Thinking Time
In chapter 7, Russell focuses upon
children’s understandings of relationships with special
attention to the differences between the ways that the boys and
girls in her cohort understood relationships with peers.
Generally, her findings mirror the previous chapter’s
findings. Children in younger grades made few distinctions
between types of friendship or the contexts of friendship. As the
children in Russell’s study advanced in age, they were
better able to identify different types of friendship and
situations in which friendship is manifested and threatened.
Although there were many similarities in the ways that boys and
girls understood friendship, Russell found differences in how
boys and girls expressed themselves in public. Her findings agree
with Gilligan’s (1982) claim that around the age of
adolescence girls begin to lose their wiliness to express
themselves in a mixed-gender setting. While the girls in
Russell’s study were comfortable expressing themselves at
young ages, as they aged, they experienced hostility and ridicule
from boys. As a result, the girls began to withdraw from public
conversations in mixed-gender settings.
In the concluding chapter of her book, Russell
discusses her findings in chapters 5-7. It is in this final
chapter that a curious dissonance in her findings emerges. While
she claims that students in the community of enquiry gained trust
throughout the study, other findings, mentioned in chapter 7,
indicate that girls experienced a hostile public space for
voicing their thoughts. Habermas has been criticized by feminist
theorists (e.g. Fraser, 1992) because of his idealization of the
public sphere. A similar criticism might be leveled against
Russell. Her findings fail to appreciate the dissonance between
an idealized public sphere within her classroom and the
experiences of female students who were in that sphere. The
following quotes illustrate this dissonance. Russell states,
“Trust, which developed gradually, enabled the children to
take a risk, to question, to back-track from an entrenched
position and take on board the views of others” (p. 172).
Later, Russell refers to a conversation that she had with female
students concerning mixed-gendered classrooms,
The reticence of girls after age ten to partake fully in
discussion and their willingness to allow the boys to dominate
raises a question about the value of mixed-gender classrooms as
they exist in Ireland were class teaching is largely the norm and
the competitiveness of boys in such a system has an inhibiting
effect on girls” (p. 181).
Russell leaves the dissonance illustrated in these quotes
relatively unexamined. I couldn’t help think that Russell
missed an important opportunity to answer her research question
about gender differences, and at the same time, address current
questions in the field of democratic education. These questions
problematize the concept of an idealized public sphere by
examining the influence of gender, race, culture, and history on
inequality of voice in the public spaces such as classrooms.
In conclusion, while an interesting addition to
the literature, Russell’s book lacks focus. Returning to
the title of her book, How children become moral selves:
Building character and promoting citizenship in education, I
am struck by the ambitiousness of her project. She delved into
literature in the areas of moral development, character
education, and citizenship education. Unfortunately, rather than
choose one theoretical lens to interpret her study, her book
becomes lost in a sea of theories, fragmented by competing
interpretations. This fragmentation could have been used
productively by deconstructing some of the traditional binaries
within the literature. This is another missed opportunity.
Russell does not give sufficient attention to ideas concerning
the role of social context in constructing knowledge about gender
identity in public places (e.g. Baxter, 2002; Butler, 1999). A
powerful example of this absence is found in her lack of
attention to the context in which the study takes place, a
parochial school. As a result, her analysis and interpretations
are somewhat dated and perpetuate rather than deconstruct
traditional binaries. Although the concept of the ‘moral
self’ could have been applied fruitfully along these lines,
Russell fails to make this connection. Russell’s book is
valuable as a descriptive account of a cohort of elementary level
students as they experienced the Thinking Time activity,
moral development, and civic education. Unfortunately, her book
lacks the analysis and interpretation (Wolcott, 1994) necessary
to examine the multiple identities and subjectivities that
students bring into classroom. With this in mind, her book would
be of value to educators who are considering activities such as
Thinking Time, but offers little new to researchers in the
areas of moral, character, or civic education.
Baxter, J. (2002). Competing discourses in the classroom: A
post-structuralist discourse analysis of girls' and boys' speech
in public contexts. Discourse and Society, 13(6),
Bennet, W. J. (1993). The book of virtues: A treasury of
great moral stories. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Burman, E. (2008). Developments:Child, image, nation.
New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the
subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Cannella, G. S. (1997). Deconstructing early childhood
education: Social justice and revolution. New York: Peter
Lang Publishing, Inc.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools
shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago
Fraser, N. (1992). Rethinking the public sphere: A
contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In
C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp.
1-48). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy,
and civic courage (P. Clarke, Trans.). Lanham, MD: Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological
theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative
action (C. Lenhardt & S. W. Nicholsen, Trans.).
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.
Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children. Retrieved
April 15, 2008, from http://www.montclair.edu/cehs/academic/iapc/thinking.shtml
Johnson, C. S. (2008). A culturally consonant tone: African
American teacher theorizing on character education policy.
Theory and Research in Social Education, 36(1), 66-87.
Lipman, M. (1988). Philosophy goes to school.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Matthews, G. B. (1984). Dialogues with children.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics
and moral education. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Power, F. C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1989).
Lawrence Kohlberg's approach to moral education. New York:
Columbia University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1981). The genesis of higher mental
functions. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in
Soviet Psychology (pp. 144-188). New York: Sharpe.
Wolcott, H. F. (1994). Transforming qualitative data:
Description, analysis, and interpretation. Thousand Oaks, CA:
About the Reviewer
Steve Camicia received his Ph.D. from University of
Washington. He is currently an assistant professor of elementary
education with an emphasis in social studies and multicultural
education. His research and teaching focus on curriculum and
instruction in the areas of perspective consciousness, prejudice
reduction, social justice, and democratic decision making
processes. The interrelationships between democratic,
multicultural, and global education are central considerations in
his work. In addition, his research examines the current
international education movement, the implications of
globalization on curriculum, and disputes over the design and
implementation of history curriculum.
Copyright is retained by the first or sole author,
who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.
Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman
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